Supporting an AI-enabled future in Africa

The impact of artificial intelligence (AI) dominated discussions at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos – with delegates touching on everything from ethics to democratisation and workforce re-skilling.

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Amrote Abdella, Regional Director of Microsoft 4Afrika.

While AI is primed to be the driving force of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, its widespread acceptance and adoption among businesses is still in early stages. 2018 was an important year in shifting current perceptions around AI, demonstrating it as a technology that is augmenting human capabilities, not replacing them, and benefiting the speed and scale of any organisation, large or small.

These conversations have carried weight. In just four years, the number of global organisations deploying AI has increased by 270 percent.

In Africa, the momentum is similar, and continues to grow as access to high quality broadband and cloud computing improves. Organisations are recognising AI’s ability to help with some of the continent’s most pervasive problems, from reducing poverty to improving healthcare and enhancing crop yields to feed a growing population.

To achieve an AI-enabled future in Africa, forward-thinking policy makers, innovative startups, technology partners, civil society groups and stakeholders all need to work together to promote a vibrant AI ecosystem in Africa – one that enables inclusive growth and provides a clear and trusted path to digital transformation.

Promoting innovation with AI

Many local startups have already begun their AI journeys. Nigerian startup, MyMusic, for example, has experimented with chatbots to help users discover new local music. And East African fintech startup, MoVAS Group is building AI into their credit-scoring algorithms, enabling more unbanked farmers and small business owners to access loans the first time.

In the finance industry, 66 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa is listed as unbanked. The proliferation of mobile banking across the continent has increased financial inclusion, and AI powered intelligent applications are now taking this further. AI can capture and crunch large volumes of non-traditional data, such as mobile wallet transactions, that enable service providers to make automated loan decisions to new customers, with no previous financial track records, in seconds.

Across the Middle East and Africa, a projected $28.3 million will be spent on developing AI solutions in the financial sector – and organisations are ramping up efforts to ensure young developers are well equipped for the task. At the recent AI Bootcamp, hosted by Data Science Nigeria and sponsored by Microsoft, for example, local developers were upskilled in using deep learning concepts to drive financial inclusion.

Developing this kind of AI capacity in Africa is essential, not only to ensure our 200 million-strong youth population is equipped for jobs of the future, but also to ensure local AI systems themselves are unbiased and inclusive.

Developing the right skills and data sets

Without the skills to build homegrown applications, organisations are likely to import machine-learning algorithms developed elsewhere, which are trained on biased data sets that lack local context. This could have severe consequences in industries like healthcare.

What Africa needs is a richer pool of local data, coupled with AI applications that are built by skilled local teams with diverse demographic, gender, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. To achieve this, outdated processes need to be digitised, education systems need to adapt quickly, and digital literacy programmes need to be more far-reaching.

Local organisations are making good headway. The Centre for Proteomic and Genomic Research (CPGR) in South Africa recently collaborated with Microsoft to build a first-for-Africa technology platform on Azure, which is enhancing the storage and processing of African genomic datasets. With this data and computing power, the CPGR is running more ground-breaking biomedical research in local disease development and prevention.

In Malawi, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has opened an AppFactory at the Dzaleka camp, which is bringing skills in coding and data analytics to young refugees and asylum seekers. Applications that have already been created include Smart Mapokezi, which manages schedules for the allocation of food at the refugee camps.

Policies for an AI-enabled future

As AI opens up these new frontiers for economic and social transformation, governments and policy makers need to ensure that this new data-driven ecosystem is governed by a strong code of ethics. AI systems need to be reliable, secure, private, transparent, accountable and beneficial to all.

At every touchpoint, we believe AI should augment and amplify human ingenuity, and accelerate economic and social prosperity. African innovators revolutionised the way mobile technology is used. With the right systems in place, we look forward to seeing what they’ll do next with AI.

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